How a high school student, a couple soccer moms and a college freshman can change the world
One of the most remarkable dimensions of the story of The Shabbat Project is how quickly everything happened. Last year, in just a matter of months, a social movement sprung to life, and today there are more than 5000 partner groups working on The Shabbat Project in more than 550 cities and 65 countries, and across eight languages.
The conventional thinking is that to establish a global organisation, you are going to need extensive beaurocratic structures – committees, regional and international directors; secretariats; massive budgets. This is the sort of infrastructure that takes years to build. Yet The Shabbat Project seemed to take shape almost overnight. How did this happen?
I think that part of the answer lies in the stories of the “ordinary” people – the real heroes – that made The Shabbat Project happen. Take Daniel Cohen for example – a 19-year-old college freshman from Seattle, Washington who successfully brought The Shabbat Project to his city. Daniel managed to rally the support of the Jewish community of Seattle, right across the board. He made it happen.
There were the group of Jews in the suburb of Vaclouse, Sydney who decided to keep that Shabbat, though there was no shul within walking distance. What was their solution? A pop-up shul. They created their own shul in one of their homes, and brought in a guest rabbi for the occasion. They made it happen.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, Kim Tobias and Hayley Harborough decided to make a Friday night Shabbat meal for their family and friends in the garden of their home. More than a hundred people from the neighborhood came. That was in 2013. The story went round, and the following year, inspired by Kim and Hayley’s example, hundreds of similar “block party” Shabbat dinners took place across the world. They made it happen.
Lara Ann Tevi Sucer, a 21-year-old from Argentina, played a crucial role in bringing The Shabbat Project to her community. Working closely with the head office team in Johannesburg, she arranged for The Shabbat Project educational material to be produced in Spanish. Ultimately, she played an integral role in making Buenos Aires one of the global hubs of the Shabbat Project in 2014, and in bringing the initiative to Jews across Argentina.
And this is the remarkable dimension of the story of The Shabbat Project. It is people like Daniel, and the people of Vaclouse, and Kim and Hayley, and Lara who have made the project what it is today. None of them held positions of authority within their communities. And yet they made it happen because The Shabbat Project, more than anything else, is a people’s movement. It is by the people and for the people.
A people’s movement is about people taking personal responsibility; it is also about real bonds of love and friendship between people. Social media has been an important element of The Shabbat Project’s reach – but ultimately, to drive a people’s movement forward, we have to go beyond virtual friends and establish real connections with each other.
In the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell explains how the “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Tehran actually had surprisingly little to do with Twitter. Gladwell turns on its head the assumption that Twitter and Facebook were the real catalysts in sparking the social revolutions that we have seen in modern times. Gladwell points out that the role of social media was negligible in Moldova in 2009, and in the student uprising in Tehran a few months later (in terms of the former, few Twitter accounts exist in Moldova, and in terms of the latter, most of the tweets were in English rather than Farsi – indicating that it was more of a global media sensation than an Iranian social media phenomenon). He concludes that changing the world via social media alone is unlikely because the ties and connections between social media users are generally very weak.
Real change in society is achieved through the bonds that exist between friends and family. These connections are genuine, not artificial. To explain this phenomenon, Gladwell looks at the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, a social movement that began in the American South and spread throughout the region. He cites the specific example of the mass “sit-ins”, whereby people of colour entered eating houses and other facilities reserved for whites, and demanded to be served. The sit-ins mushroomed into a nation-wide social protest against segregation – a people’s movement that gained momentum until it eventually liberated America from the institutionalised racism that had marred the country for two centuries.
It is these genuine bonds and connections between people that change the world – and they are the heart and soul of The Shabbat Project. The energy and power of what is driving this year’s Shabbat Project in more than 550 cities around the world, is the real bonds of family, friendship and community. And like the Civil Rights Movement in America, The Shabbat Project is changing the world because of these kind of connections. This is what being a people’s movement means.
There is precedent for this in Jewish history. We have an example of a social movement that dates back thousands of years, started by a Jew named Elkana. At the time – though he would eventually be the father of Samuel the Prophet – nobody knew who Elkana really was. He lived at a time when the mitzvah of going up to the Tabernacle for the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, had become sorely neglected. So what did Elkana do? He didn’t wait for the official leaders of his generation to take action. He decided to do something himself. He took his family and a few friends, and they travelled from place to place in a caravan, talking about the mitzva, telling people they were on their way up to the Tabernacle for the pilgrim festival, and inviting them to come with them. At first a few people joined them, then a few hundred, then thousands, then tens of thousands – until Elkana and his family had changed the world by starting a real social movement. A movement of the people.
This is the spirit of The Shabbat Project. By working together through the real bonds that connect us within our communities we can change the world.